Speculating on Documenta 13

I am yet to visit Documenta 13, but the more I read about it, the more emphatic I become about the necessity of getting there. I might actually beg and steal to get there. I have Australian friends, who, after putting themselves at a car-loan breed of expense, are actually there right now. I have no excuse, they told me; which is true, Kassel being for me a mere ryanair-plus-train kind of scenario. The agonies of intercontinental travel – stopovers in Abu Dhabi, guiltily consumed trash-films and restless, harangued sleep – just don’t figure in my privileged European jaunt. But the point is even they felt the necessity in getting there, and made it happen.

I made it to Documenta 12, back in 2007, when I was having the time of my life on a Fine art exchange programme in Leipzig. I did, it must be said, virtually no work. One of my most painful memories was constructing an intricate and comprehensive presentation in German, even drafting in a particularly proficient American friend to help with the translation, only to stand up in front of my classmates and be told I could present in English: truly, truly terrible. But a friend and myself did take a roundabout trip to Kassel, staying in a small apartment that had been advertised as occupied by ‘some well-known pirates’: we were definitely intrigued. On entering the flat, which was unoccupied for the duration of our stay, we found that the owner harboured a full-scale Johnny Depp obsession. A life-sized Jack Sparrow cardboard cut-out stood omnipotent in the corner of the kitchen, with numerous other Depp-related paraphernalia scattered around the flat[i]. But it was an interesting stay in Kassel, and Documenta certainly impressed. It was absolutely huge: three days just wasn’t enough to see it all. Kassel itself is a bit grim though, I for one wondered what happened there once the circus had left town, only to return in five long years time…

But return it has. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13 has received universal acclaim for its sophistication and intellectual rigor: it has, perhaps even justifiably, been called the ‘most important exhibition to date of the 21st century[ii]. It sees to have quite a different outlook than that of 2007, which was curated by Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack and, from what I can remember, seemed to address notions of modernity. As such, it queried western and non-western treatments or understandings of the theme, and comprised a lot of historical or archival objects. Even though it may have been a quiet affair, Documenta always sets a tone, and so in turn, 12 was of course influential, particularly in the recognition of non-western artists. And so, if Documenta 13 elucidates a sensibility, and thus sets a tone, it will be interesting to see what kind of tone that will be. This, after all, is an exhibition where I can attend a weekly seminar entitled, “What is Thinking?” Documenta 13 is thoroughly engaged with philosophy, that much is clear from the kind of seminars and activities on offer. More than a kind of superficial philosophy-lite, though, Christov-Bakargiev seems to be engaging specifically with a kind of object-orientated philosophy:

When an artwork is looked at closely, it becomes, as in meditation, an ever more abstract exercise, a thinking and imagining while thinking, until the phenomenology of that viscous experience allows the mind to merge with matter, and slowly, possibly, to see the world not from the point of view of the discerning subject, the detached subject, but from within so-called objects and outward[iii].

This kind of philosophy has some problems with phenomenology, following Heidegger, and proposes a kind of ‘weird realism[iv].’ This might have been an odd and unfashionable position to take not so long ago, but what Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta shows is that this is no longer the case. I am truly excited about the next five years in art.

Another report after I see the damn thing.


[i] “Scattered around the flat” does imply they were out on show for all to see. In truth, they were tucked away in drawers.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] The term is Graham Harman’s. See Harman On Vicarious Causation, Collapse II

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